Why Dialogue Doesn’t Say it All

Much of what happens over the course of a book is conveyed through dialogue.

Confessions of love.

Death threats.

Whispered secrets.

But, the thing about dialogue that makes it great is that dialogue doesn’t give away the whole story.


No One Tells the (Whole) Truth

Each and every character that comes across the page has a secret. There is no person in the world that isn’t hiding something from someone in their lives. It’s part of human nature, really. We hide things we’re ashamed about, taught that we shouldn’t do or like certain things. We harbor the secrets of others out of love, respect, or fear.

Give each character a few secrets, some large and some small. It could be as innocent as eating bleu cheese dressing with a spoon. It could be as dark as a literal skeleton in the closet. Whatever it is, try to decide how it will affect the person’s dialogue. What details are they leaving out? What subjects do they try to avoid? How do they behave while talking about similar subjects?

Knowing these secrets and how the character reacts will help you build effective and realistic dialogue.

There’s No Shame in Eavesdropping

People will wag their fingers at others for listening in on seemingly private conversations, but you don’t have to be afraid. Go to places like your favorite coffee shop or local grocery store and linger, listening to people. Hearing the way various people converse will help you build believable dialogue. You will pick up new syntax patters, find revealing information that you could apply to your characters (giving them a new, human facet), and often make you laugh.

Listening to the speech patterns of other people will help your dialogue feel more real.

But, never use a name you overhear and the details you might hear from that person’s conversation. That feels creepy and is a huge overstep of privacy boundaries. You can find inspiration, but never replicate what you hear word for word.

Read it Out Loud

More often than not, reading your dialogue out loud will help you root out annoying patterns. You will find words or phrases that are repeated too many times, realize how irritating it is to repeat a character’s name in speech, and see how it feels rolling off the tongue in real life.

Try to visualize your character as your read out loud. Do the lines of dialogue you’re reading fit this character? Does it feel like something this character might say? If not, try new lines until it feels right, inserting new speech patterns or vocabulary. You want the character’s dialogue to be small windows into a character’s mind, especially if the character isn’t the narrator. Any line that doesn’t feel like it belongs to this character will feel jarring to the reader, and we don’t want that.

This doesn’t have to be hard or convoluted. Resources to help you create convincing dialogue exist all around you. Use any of these easy tricks to help improve your book’s dialogue.

2 thoughts on “Why Dialogue Doesn’t Say it All”

  1. Oh, indeed. I like fluffy mystery YA and suspense and nothing advances a simple, albeit clever plot like the eavesdrop, or the-not-quite-the-whole-truth. The latter is a wonderful device for diversion and red herrings. When it comes to reading out loud, I find a cocktail can be of infinite benefit, as well as an empty house.

    1. In this case, I was advocating for the author to eavesdrop in real life in order to replicate how a real person might talk. Although, that works, too!

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